Savoury Meats


    
    IN the bushy thicket the doe stood trembling over the young one to which she had given birth in the early part of the night. A light wind began to breathe just before dawn, and in its languid throbbing the slim twigs and half unfolded leaves from time to time rustled stiffly. Over the tree-tops, and from the open spaces in the wood, could be seen the first pallor of approaching day; and one pink thread, a finger long, outlined a lonely fragment of the horizon. But in the bushy thicket it was dark. The mother could not see her little one, but kept feeling it anxiously and lightly with her silken nose. She was waiting till it should be strong enough to rise and nurse.
    As the pink thread became scarlet and crept along a wider arc, and the cold light spread, there came from a far-off hillside the trailing echo of a howl. It was the cry of a wolf hunting alone. It hardly penetrated the depths of the bushy thicket, [Page 143] but the doe heard it, and faced about to the point whence it came, and stamped angrily with slim, sharp hoof. Her muzzle was held high, and her nostrils expanded tensely, weighing and analysing every scent that came on the chill air. But the dread cry was not repeated. No smell of danger breathed in her retreat. The light stole at last through the tangled branches. Then the little one struggled to its feet, its spotted sides still heaving under the stress of their new expansion; and the doe, with lowered head and neck bent far around, watched it with great eyes as it pressed its groping mouth against her udder and learned to feed.
    Presently the sides of branch and stem and leaf facing the dawn took on a hue of pink. A male song-sparrow, not yet feeling quite at home after his journey from the South, sang hesitatingly from the top of a bush. A pair of crows squawked gutturally and confidentially in a tree-top, where they contemplated nesting. Everything was wet, but it was a tonic and stimulating wetness, like that of a vigorous young swimmer climbing joyously out of a cool stream. The air had a sharp savour, a smell of gummy aromatic buds, and sappy twigs, and pungent young leaves. But the body of the [Page 144] scent, which seemed like the very person of spring, was the affluence of the fresh earth, broken and turned up to the air by millions of tiny little thrusting blades. Presently, when the light fell into the thicket with a steeper slant, the doe stepped away, and left her little one lying, hardly to be discerned, on a spotted heap of dead leaves and moss. She stole noiselessly out of the thicket. She was going to pasture on the sprouting grasses of a neighbouring wild meadow, and to drink at the amber stream that bordered it. She knew that, in her absence, the little one’s instinct would teach him to keep so still that no marauder’s eye would be likely to detect him.
    Two or three miles away from the thicket, in the heart of the same deep-wooded wilderness, stood a long, low-roofed log cabin, on the edge of a narrow clearing. The yard was strewn with chips, some fresh cut and some far gone in decay. A lean pig rooted among them, turning up the black soil that lay beneath. An axe and black iron pot stood on the battered step before the door. In the window appeared the face of an old man, gazing blankly out upon the harsh-featured scene.
    The room where the old man sat was roughly ceiled and walled with brown boards. The sunlight [Page 145] streamed in the window, showing the red stains of rust on the cracked kitchen stove, and casting an oblong figure of brightness on the faded patchwork quilt which covered the low bed in the corner. Two years earlier John Hackett had been an erect and powerful woodsman, strong in the task of carving himself a home out of the unyielding wilderness. Then his wife had died of a swift consumption. A few weeks later he had been struck down with paralysis, from which he partly recovered to find himself grown suddenly senile and a helpless invalid. On his son, Silas, fell the double task of caring for him and working the scant, half-subjugated farm.
    Streaks and twines of yellowish white were scattered thickly amid the ragged blackness of the old man’s hair and beard. The strong, gaunt lines of his features consorted strangely with the piteous weakness that now trembled in his eyes and on his lower lip. He sat in a big home-made easy chair, which Silas had constructed for him by sawing a quarter-section out of a hogshead. This rude frame the lad had lined laboriously with straw and coarse sacking, and his father had taken great delight in it.
    A soiled quilt of blue, magenta, and white squares wrapped the old man’s legs, as he sat by the window [Page 146] waiting for Silas to come in. His withered hands picked ceaselessly at the quilt.
    “I wish Si’d come! I want my breakfast!” he kept repeating, now wistfully, now fretfully. His gaze wandered from the window to the stove, from the stove to the window, with slow regularity. When the pig came rooting into his line of vision, it vexed him, and he muttered peevishly to himself.
    “That there hog’ll hev the whole place rooted up. I wish Si’d come and drive him out of that!”
    At last Si came. The old man’s face smoothed itself, and a loving light came into his eyes as the lad adjusted the pillow at his head. The doings of the hog were forgotten.
    Si bustled about to get breakfast, the old man’s eyes following every movement. The tea was placed on the back of the stove to draw. A plate of cold buckwheat cakes was brought out of the cupboard and set on the rude table. A cup, with its handle broken off, was half filled with molasses, for “sweetenin’,” and placed beside the buckwheat cakes. Then Si cut some thick slices of salt pork and began to fry them. They “sizzled” cheerfully in the pan, and to Si, with his vigorous morning appetite, the odour was rare and fine. But the old man was troubled by it. His hands picked faster at the quilt. [Page 147]
    “Si,” said he, in a quavering voice, that rose and fell without regard to the force of the words, “I know ye can’t help it, but my stomach’s turned agin salt pork! It’s been a-comin’ on me this long while, that I couldn’t eat it no more. An’ now it’s come. Pork, pork, pork, — I can’t eat it no more, Si! But there, I know you can’t help it. Ye’re a good boy, a kind son, Si, and ye can’t help it!”
    Si went on turning the slices with an old fork till the quavering voice stopped. Then he cried, cheerfully:
    “Try an’ eat a leetle mite of it, father. This ’ere tea’s fine, an’ll sort of wash it down. An’ while I’m a working in the back field this morning I’ll try and think of somethin’ to kinder tickle your appetite!”
    The old man shook his head gloomily.
    “I can’t eat no more fried pork, Si,” said he, “not if I die fur it! I know ye can’t help it! An’ it don’t matter, fur I won’t be here much longer anyways. It’ll be a sight better fur you, Si, when I’m gone — but I kinder don’t like to leave ye here all alone. Seems like I kinder keep the house warm fur ye till ye come home! I don’t like to think of ye comin’ in an’ findin’ the house all empty, Si! But it’s been powerful empty, with jist you an’ [Page 148] me, sence mother died. It useter be powerful good, Si, didn’t it, comin’ home and findin’ her a-waitin’ fur us, an’ hot supper ready on the table, an’ the lamp a-shinin’ cheerful? An’ what suppers she could cook! D’ye mind the pies, an’ the stews, an’ the fried deer’s meat? I could eat some of that fried deer’s meat now, Si. An’ I feel like it would make me better. It ain’t no fault of yours, Si, but I can’t eat no more salt pork!”
    Si lifted the half-browned slices of yellow and crimson on to a plate, poured the gravy over them, and set the plate on the table. Then he dragged his father’s chair over to the table, helped him to tea and buckwheat cakes and molasses, and sat down to his own meal. The fried pork disappeared swiftly in his strong young jaws, while his father nibbled reluctantly at the cold and soggy cakes. Si cleared the table, fed the fire, dragged his father back to the sunny window, and then took down the long gun, with the powder-horn and shot-pouch, which hung on pegs behind the door.
    The old man noticed what he was doing.
    “Ain’t ye goin’ to work in the back field, Silas?” he asked, plaintively.
    “No, father,” said the lad, “I’m goin’ a-gunnin’. Ef I don’t I some of that fried deer’s meat fur [Page 149] your supper to-night, like mother useter fix fur ye, my name ain’t Silas Hackett!”
    He set a tin of fresh water on the window ledge within reach of his father’s hand, gave one tender touch to the pillow, and went out quickly. The old man’s eyes strained after him till he disappeared in the woods.
    Silas walked with the noiseless speed of the trained woodsman. His heart was big with pity for his father, and heavy with a sense of approaching loss. But instinctively his eyes took note of the new life beginning to surge about him in myriad and tumultuous activity. It surged, too, in the answering current of his strong young blood; and from time to time he would forget his heaviness utterly for a moment, thrilled through and through by a snatch of bird song, or a glimpse of rose-red maple buds, or a gleam of ineffable blueness through the tree-tops, or a strange, clean-smelling wind that made him stop and stretch his lungs to take it in. Suddenly he came upon a fresh deer-track.
    The sorcery of spring was forgotten. His heaviness was forgotten. He was now just the hunter, keen upon the trail of the quarry. Bending low, silent as a shadow, peering like a panther, he slipped between the great trunks, and paused in the fringe [Page 150] of downy catkined willows that marked the meadow’s edge. On the other side of the meadow he saw the form of a doe, drinking. He heard on the wet air the sharp, chiming brawl of the brook, fretted by some obstruction. He took a careful aim. The doe lifted her head, satisfied, and ready to return to her young one in the thicket. A shot rang out across the meadow, and she sprang into the air, to fall back with her slender muzzle in the stream, her forelegs bent beneath her, her hind legs twitching convulsively for a moment before they stiffened out upon the grass.
    As Silas staggered homeward he was no longer the keen hunter. He no longer heard the summons of the spring morning. All he thought of was the pleasure which would light up the wan and piteous face of the old man in the chair by the window the savoury smell of the frying deer’s meat would fill the dusky air of the cabin. As he crossed the chip-strewn yard, he saw his father’s face watching for him. He dropped his burden at the door, and entered, panting and triumphant.
    “I’ve got it fur ye, father!” he cried, softly touching the tremulous hands with his big brown fingers.
    “I’m right glad, Si,” quavered the old man, “but [Page 151] I’m a sight gladder to see ye back! The hours is long when ye’re not by me! Oh, but ye do mind me of your mother, Si!”
    Si took the carcass to the shed, dressed it carefully, and then, after cutting several thick slices from the haunch, stowed it in the little black hole of a cellar, beneath the cabin floor. He put some fair potatoes to boil, and proceeded to fry the juicy steaks which the old man loved. The fragrance of them filled the cabin. The old man’s eyes grew brighter, and his hands less tremulous. When the smoking and sputtering dish was set upon the table, Silas again drew up the big chair, and the two made a joyous meal. The old man ate as he had not eaten for months, and the generous warmth of the fresh meat put new life into his withered veins. His under lip grew firmer, his voice steadier, his brain more clear. With a gladness that brought tears into his eyes, Silas marked the change.
    “Father,” he cried, “ye look more like yerself than I’ve seen ye these two years past!”
    And the old man replied, with a ring of returning hope in his voice:
    “This ’ere deer’s meat’s more’n any medicine. Ef I git well, ever, seems to me it’ll be according to what I eat or don’t’ eat, more’n anything else.” [Page 152]
    “Whatever ye think’ll help ye, that ye shall hev, father,” declared Silas, “ef I have to crawl on hands an’ knees all day an’ all night fur it!”
    Meanwhile, in the heart of the bushy thicket, on the spotted heap of leaves, lay a little fawn, waiting for its mother. It was trembling now with hunger and chill. But its instinct kept it silent all day long. The afternoon light died out. Twilight brought a bitter chill to the depths of the thicket. When night came, hunger, cold, and fear at last overcame the little one’s muteness. From time to time it gave a plaintive cry, then waited, and listened for its mother’s coming. The cry was feeble, but there were keen ears in the forest to catch it. There came a stealthy crackling in the bushes, and the fawn struggled to its feet with a glad expectation. Two green eyes, close to the ground, floated near. There was a pounce, a scuffle — and then the soft, fierce whispering sound of a wildcat satisfying itself with blood. [Page 155]